Former champion Phil Mickelson admitted he felt like crying after going agonisingly close to recording the lowest score in major history in the Open Championship at Royal Troon.
Mickelson, who has not won a tournament since lifting the Claret Jug at Muirfield in 2013, needed to hole from 15 feet on the 18th to card a nine-under-par 62, only to see his birdie attempt catch the edge of the hole and stay out.
The 46-year-old could barely believe it as he had to settle for a 63 – the 28th such score in majors – and a three-shot lead over American compatriot Patrick Reed and Germany’s Martin Kaymer, with defending champion Zach Johnson a shot further back in an eight-strong group which also included England’s Andy Sullivan.
Ryder Cup team-mates Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson finished three under par and a shot ahead of Rory McIlroy, while Masters and US Open champions Danny Willett and Dustin Johnson – as well as Jordan Spieth – were level par.
Mickelson, who finished a shot outside the play-off the last time the Open was staged at Troon in 2004, had never shot lower than 66 in the Open before, with his last such score sealing victory three years ago.
But the left-hander took advantage of the wind dropping in the afternoon to card four birdies on the front nine and four more coming home as he looks to become the seventh consecutive American winner at Troon after Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf, Tom Watson, Mark Calcavecchia, Justin Leonard and Todd Hamilton.
That would make him the fourth oldest major champion ever and the oldest at the Open since Old Tom Morris, who was just two months older than Mickelson when winning in 1867.
“This was pretty heartbreaking,” said Mickelson.
“Nothing will match that final round at Muirfield, but it was one of the best rounds I’ve ever played and yet I want to shed a tear right now. That putt on 18 was an opportunity to do something historical. I knew it and with a foot to go I thought I had done it.
“I saw that ball rolling right in the centre. I went to go get it, I had that surge of adrenaline that I had just shot 62, and then I had the heartbreak that I didn’t and watched that ball lip out. It was, ‘Wow, that stings’. To have played this round and walk away feeling like I want to cry is a very awkward feeling.”
Bubba Watson claimed Royal Troon’s ‘Postage Stamp’ was “killing him” after seeing his blistering start come to a sudden halt. The two-time US Masters winner birdied five of the opening six holes only to come a cropper on its notorious eighth hole.
Watson took a triple bogey six at the 123-yard par three – the shortest hole in Open Championship golf – after finding the bunker, the rough and then failing to chip back up a slope.
“That hole has been killing me all week, even in practice,” Watson said.
Selected first round scores: (Gbr & Irl unless stated, par 71): 63 Phil Mickelson (USA), 66 Martin Kaymer (Ger), Patrick Reed (USA), 67 Soren Kjeldsen (Den), Steve Stricker (USA), Zach Johnson (USA), Tony Finau (USA), Keegan Bradley (USA), Justin Thomas (USA), Andrew Sullivan, Billy Horschel (USA), 68 Justin Rose, Shugo Imahira (Jpn), Bill Haas (USA), Sergio Garcia (Spa), Yuta Ikeda (Jpn), Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa), Thomas Pieters (Bel), Soomin Lee (Kor), Richard Sterne (Rsa), Henrik Stenson (Swe).
69 Andrew Johnston, Francesco Molinari (Ita), Adam Scott (Aus), Matt Jones
(Aus), Gary Woodland (USA), Zander Lombard (Rsa), Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Vijay
Singh (Fij), Rory McIlroy, Kodai Ichihara (Jpn), Jamie Donaldson, Rickie Fowler
(USA), Anirban Lahiri (Ind)